A new era for U.S. trade policy

President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (left) embrace after speaking at the General Motors Orion Assembly Plant in Michigan. | AP Photo

The president has cleared a path to stronger long-term trade policy, says the author.

President Barack Obama is set to sign into law four trade bills. A few pen strokes will start to open key markets in Asia and Latin America, supporting tens of thousands of U.S. jobs. They will aid U.S. workers harmed by global competition and strengthen our partnerships with the world’s poorest countries.

The trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, along with the renewal of Trade Adjustment Assistance reforms and key preference programs, took a long road to passage — some say too long. But in taking the time to get these initiatives right, the president cleared a path to stronger long-term trade policy.

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When the president signs these bills on Friday, the ceremony will signal more than the deals’ ratifications. It will validate this president’s approach to trade: more responsible and more responsive to Americans’ concerns. He is not only finding markets for made-in-America products but also credentialing trade as a driving force for U.S. jobs.

This administration inherited three trade agreements that Congress could not pass. They had languished for years past their signings. Attempting to advance them as-is would have been a waste of time. So we set out to make them better.

We began in 2009, with work that few noticed. At the president’s direction, my office sought input from the broadest possible range of stakeholders — what exporters and workers felt was right, and what they knew wasn’t good enough.

Armed with crucial new information, we acted.

Market access gaps had hindered the South Korea agreement. Months of tough negotiations — including the president’s decision not to cut a deal too soon in Seoul — yielded better results for U.S. automakers and workers. Our December 2010 agreement will help Ford, General Motors and Chrysler sell more cars in South Korea, supporting jobs at U.S. auto plants and all the way down the supply chain. That won unprecedented backing from car manufacturers and the United Auto Workers.

Violence against Colombian labor leaders had stopped that agreement cold. In August 2010, Juan Manuel Santos and the former labor leader Angelino Garzon took the reins of Colombia’s government, committing to further worker protections and to address past wrongs. In February, our president sent a team to Bogota.